Two years ago, I reviewed the inaugural River City Biennale in Wichita as “The DIY Biennale.” Co-founders Ann Resnick and Elizabeth Stevenson, along with curator Stacey Switzer, organized an amazing set of installations on a shoe-string budget. The second, recently completed, incarnation of the River City Biennale, seems to have moved from a complete do-it-yourself format to one with a greater air of legitimacy. RCB now has a board of directors and a wider network of sponsors, and the Wichita Arts Council partnered with them to provide small stipends to each of the chosen artists.
One of the goals of RCB is for Wichita residents to engage with critical contemporary art produced within their own communities. The artists exhibited are chosen from a pool of applicants by a curator from outside the community. This year’s curator, Hesse McGraw, a former senior editor at Review and previously the assistant director of the Max Protetch Gallery in New York, traveled from the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art in Omaha. Through the selection process, McGraw narrowed the pool to a group of eight artists with Wichita connections—Kristin Beal-DeGrandmont, Joey Capadona, Marc Durfee, Sarah Kephard, Monika Meler, Lisa Rundstrom, Larry Schwarm, and Derrick Stanley—and grouped their work across three different venues, the African American Museum, Project Gallery, and Fisch Haus Galleries.
McGraw developed the theme of “Inland Systems” to help bring coherence to his selections. As the title vaguely suggests, many of the works make reference to some form of landscape, whether it’s the urban landscape of Wichita or a more personal “landscape” or set of experiences. This theme was particularly evident in several strong works at Project and Fisch Haus. Lisa Rundstrom’s layered installation of paint on plastic and paper with light exhibits literal landscape imagery, as do Larry Schwarm’s photographs of fires on the Kansas prairie. Monika Meler’s mixed media book, draped across a table and floor, evokes the endless Midwestern rural landscape in its long horizontal format, while its abstracted geometric imagery touches on a more urban feeling. Kristin Beal-DeGrandmont’s installation at Project similarly evokes an in-between feeling, an overlap of urban and rural experiences. Joey Capadona embraces the urban landscape in “City of Wichita Check Map,” a video projection in which he maps out all of the check-cashing businesses in the city. Further underlining the blight of predatory lending practices, Capadona weekly performed as Mr. Moneybags, a character on stilts who distributed out hand-printed money to passersby. Sarah Kephart’s Chandelier, while strikingly reminiscent of the wax sculptures of Petah Coyne, makes abstract reference to urban life in a monochromatic found-object Louise-Nevelson sort of way.
One of the strengths of the 2010 RCB lies in its diversity of media. Wichita artists, like those around the world, increasingly seek to take their work off the wall and interact with the viewer in an artistic experience, such as in video and performance works. Resnick and Stevenson organized some admirable community events to help viewers more fully understand and engage with contemporary art in general. Another potential great strength of RCB is its embrace of multiple venues. This year’s inclusion of the African American Museum should have been an opportunity for artists to interact with history and with the space itself. Unfortunately, the works there seem grouped there by default, interacting neither with each other nor with the space. Presumably, the curator had some vision for organizing the works the way he did, but he imparted no insights to the viewers. Unlike the strong catalogue essay written by Stacey Switzer for the first RCB, this year’s incarnation included nothing from the curator. As in any exhibition, some works speak more loudly to the audience than others. An essay, or even a simple wall text, from the curator would have helped those quieter works find additional engagement from their viewers.